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Supportive Parenting for Childhood Anxiety: Working Together Helps Relieve the Stress of a Difficult Situation

Two weeks ago my wife and I attended a talk by Dr. Eli Lebowitz of the Yale Child Study Center, as part of Laurel House’s Family Seminar Series.  Dr. Lebowitz is an expert on childhood and adolescent anxiety, and co-founder of the Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) program.

One of the most powerful messages of the evening was the observation that many mothers and fathers dealing with serious anxiety issues in a child are actually very good parents.  They tend to be empathic, responsive and involved – ideal qualities for healthy parenting. But where anxiety is concerned, these qualities can also make parents more susceptible to the “protection trap,” which I wrote about in a previous post.  Put simply, an attentive parent’s natural instincts to protect and soothe a frightened child can turn dysfunctional when normal childhood fears cross the line into an anxiety.

The alternative to the protection trap is supportive parenting, which consists of:

  1. Acceptance – acknowledging that the child’s anxious feelings are real and legitimate.
  2. Confidence – having faith in the child’s ability to cope with the anxious feelings.

In his book, “Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety: A Guide for Caregivers,” Dr. Lebowitz cautions  parents about inadvertently splitting this message into its component parts.

In many families, it is common for one parent to deliver the acceptance message (in the form of reassurance) while the other stands for the importance of building confidence (in the form of higher expectations).   Unfortunately, this can lead to polarization, in which one spouse becomes overly protective and the other becomes overly demanding.   Both approaches, when taken up by different parents, can reinforce anxiety, while adding to the stress of an already difficult situation.

Dr. Lebowitz referred to this problem in his talk at Laurel House.  The solution is for both parents to pull back from the extremes and get on the same page with an integrative message of acceptance and confidence.

Dr. Lebowitz’s book includes a chapter on “Improving Collaboration Between Parents” and another on what to do when one parent refuses or is simply unable to get on board with a plan for supportive parenting.

This discussion took place at Laurel House in Stamford, CT, as part of its Family Seminar Series, which aims to “provide important information on mental health and the available treatment options in our community.”  The next speaker in the Series will be Stephanie Raia, MSW, LCSW, who will talk on Family Coping Skills.


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Jay Boll, Editor in Chief www.rtor.org